Tuesday, 17 June 2014

The emerging alliance of Turkey, Iran and the United States

The only way to get US President Barack Obama to complete his "pivot" to Asia is to hope for an economic and strategic alliance between the United States, Turkey and Iran. Don't believe me? Read on and see for yourself. Ahead of the planned nuclear talks in Vienna on July 20 between Iran and western powers, the Middle East is once again immolating at a startling rate. This time around, three starkly different countries are finding their interests align in a bizarre, and unlikely, way.

The jihadist group deemed “too violent” for al Qaeda - the Sunni Muslim Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - continues to nominally hold strategically important cities stretching from Raqqah in Syria to Tikrit in Iraq. Earlier this week, ISIS forcibly took control of the northern Iraqi city of Tal Afar, 60 kilometers west of Mosul - which the group overran last week. Iraqi armed forces have either fled in front of advancing ISIS fighters or been brutally slaughtered on camera for the internet to view. According to intelligence estimates, ISIS forces number roughly 1000 - 1500 fighters. The Shiite Muslim government of Iraq enjoys unwavering support from the Shiite Iranian regime, but the unravelling security situation in Iraq’s north is worrying Tehran. However it could offer Iran a unique opportunity to consolidate greater Shiite control over northern Iraq. When Baghdad chooses to launch a counteroffensive against ISIS, covert Iranian forces will be sprinkled among Iraqi army units and both are likely to dig in for the long haul in each city they retake. Northern Iraq is historically a predominantly Sunni region. Sunni Muslims are underrepresented in the Iraqi government, a scenario which the Iranian-backed Iraq government purposefully orchestrated after the United States and NATO forces departed the country. Iraq’s recent elections did little to change the negative political reality for Iraq’s Sunni community but Baghdad has found it difficult to maintain influence over northern Iraq despite its unopposed political control. The ISIS militant threat now offers Baghdad - and by extension, Iran - a motive to leverage greater control over the region, potentially long-term. As for Turkey, it also spots an opportunity to increase its military presence and political/economic influence in northern Iraq, especially Kurdistan. The Kurdish pseudo-state in the borderlands of Iran, Iraq and Syria bothers Turkey because it has fought a protracted insurgency with militant Kurdish actors for decades. Now that the Kurds have an effective government and a relatively clear geographical space, Ankara is growing increasingly nervous and looking for subtle ways to control any emerging threat from the Kurdish region. Despite their prickly past, Turkey and the Kurds currently have a conveniently close relationship, for now. That partnership centres on energy and the ability to deliver oil and natural gas to hungry Turks and possibly even to western and eastern Europe. Long Turkish pipelines already snake down into Kurdistan and Iraq proper, with more in the planning and development stages. Kurdistan has also attracted other international investors to its sizable energy deposits and is now looking to sell those hydrocarbon products to willing buyers. This is proving more difficult than expected as no government has yet been ready to anger Baghdad for the sake of an oil shipment from the Kurds. Iraqi oil is still the preferred option with a much longer history of reliability. In an intriguing contrast, Turkey has consistently backed Kurdish energy exports, to the frustration of Baghdad. At the same time Turkey is increasing its control over Kurdish energy by purchasing double-digit stakes in its oil and natural gas fields via ExxonMobil. Now that ISIS fighters are only a few kilometres from the oil fields, Turkey sees a legitimate threat to its investments and may be looking to intervene on its own. Roughly 2500 Turkish troops are already stationed in the upper corner of northern Kurdistan, but Ankara would like to see more there. Turkey has the best equipped military in the region, but it won’t be keen to engage ISIS unilaterally. It will first need to gauge the level of potential intervention from the United States, but Turkey is likely to discover many convenient reasons to send more troops to Kurdistan to help fix the short term ISIS problem, and in so doing, quell the more important long term Kurdish problem as well. All this is playing out in the foreground of a series of preliminary talks between Iran and western powers over the former’s controversial nuclear programme. The P 5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) demand that Iran’s nuclear research and development be halted immediately. Iran has stated categorically that it will not give up its quest to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels and refuses to allow international inspectors into its nuclear facilities. Both of these provisions were explicitly outlined in the optimistic November 2013 preliminary agreement between the two sides. Despite healthy optimism of a breakthrough last year, November’s agreement slowed but did not shutter any of Iran’s nuclear activities. Iran has now backtracked or kicked the the can on almost every stipulation in the preliminary agreement. In return, Iran has received almost no punitive response from the west. The United States has essentially ignored every affront and continues to promise a return to the negotiating table in July to discuss loosening sanctions on Iran even further. If the past six months are any indication, there is no chance Iran will reciprocate with concessions of its own. Nor is there any real reason to do so from Iran’s perspective. So why does the US insist on talks? The United States is not incompetent. It knows that Iran is not going to give up its nuclear programme without more pressure, but Washington is unwilling to apply the necessary pressure at the present time.
The US motive for talking is smart and realistic. America has bigger issues at stake in the Middle East. Washington is not going to make another ideological enemy just when it needs to extricate itself from the region after more than 10 years of direct engagement. The last thing they want is an unstable region where it must use American forces to continually restore balance. The time has come to move on from that option completely. This is the time. The ISIS threat and the nuclear negotiations have brought Iran, Turkey and the United States’ interests directly into line. Vienna’s negotiations in July will take place, and they will be especially important to watch. The reason is simple: the United States needs Iran to play the role of regional balancer because its influence on the wider Shiite community in the Middle East will be critical in the coming years. Jihadist and al Qaeda groups generally hark from Sunni Islam and are largely controlled by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states. The key for the United States’ strategic future will be to restore a balance of power between the Sunnis and Shia in the Middle East. Only Iran can make this happen. But for the United States to truly exit from the Middle East, it will need to go much further. The truly historical balancing act in the Middle East is not Sunni and Shiite, but Persian and Turk. At some point in the next few decades, Turkey is highly likely to grow stronger and reclaim its historic role as hegemon over the western division of the Middle East. While Iran (modern-day Persia) will reclaim its own hegemonic influence over the eastern Middle East. Together they will balance the region along with whatever is left of the diminishing Gulf states once their seemingly unending oil revenues inevitably decline. From Iran and Turkey's perspective, they wish for control over as much of the Middle East as they can grab. In the past few years, Tehran has used proxy Shiite groups - such as the Lebanese Hezbollah - and the bloody civil war in Syria to take implicit control of a crescent of geography stretching from eastern Syria's waters to the shores of Basra in southern Iraq. If the regime in Tehran has read the United States correctly, then their judgement is that the Americans need their help to quieten the region and deal with the growing Sunni jihadist threat. The United States cannot politically afford to send its own ground troops into Iraq or Syria. It may be able to get away with deployments of Special Forces or airstrikes, but nothing substantial will be attempted. Iran on the other hand has been deploying troops in the region for decades. Even now, Iranian forces are assisting Iraqi and Syrian troops in combat, and Iranian intelligence has its tentacles spread all throughout the Middle East in ways the US could only ever dream. Washington is right now happy to cede a limited amount of room for more of this Iranian manoeuvring, so long as the Tehran doesn’t overextend itself and destabilise important US allies such as Jordan, Israel and the Gulf states. It will be a fine dance, one ready to collapse back to the status quo at any time, but its conceptual success will be crucial for the future of US strategy and Middle East security. Moreover, the United States needs Iran to help with security in Afghanistan. Iran shares a border with Afghanistan in its east. American combat forces are due to depart the South Asian country at the end of this year and Tehran has its own deep reasons for ensuring the Afghanistan remains stable. Iran has been the target of insurgent attacks from inside Afghanistan and criminal activity due to opium smuggling through Iran requires immediate addressing by Iranian security forces. But most importantly, talking to Iran reopens the possibility of bringing their dilapidated energy sector back to full exporting capacity. Not only would this help lower the international market cost of oil and natural gas, it would help fight America’s other critically important battle with Russia. A Russian stranglehold on European energy requirements severely limited the diplomatic and strategic options of almost the entire European Union in response to Russia’s recent adventurism in Ukraine. The EU would dearly like to diversify its energy sources away from Russia, and the United States shares this desire. Iran and Turkey can help make this a reality.
Turkey and Iran are the land bridge connecting Asia to Europe. If the P 5+1 can succeed in bringing Iran back into the economic fold, Turkish pipelines in the region could begin deliveries of Iranian energy directly into Europe in a potentially short space of time. The United States, Iran, Turkey, and the EU would each benefit from such a scheme. Iranian and American benefits are already clear. Turkey would become the lynchpin with critical infrastructure, while increasing its regional clout exponentially. Moreover, looking back at the current ISIS movements, deploying more Turkish troops and putting direct investment into Kurdistan limits any Kurdish ability to be recalcitrant and puts in place a blocking force against any Iranian overextension into the Middle East. That last hedge will please the Americans, giving them more options in the future in case things get out of hand. Few people were optimistic about the potential for an Iran-US rapprochement in November, but even more are confused why the US continues to insist on talking to a blatantly insolent Iran next month. But the nuclear talks were only ever an Iranian gamble, with a luxury of being traded away at any moment for greater spoils. Tehran always wanted more than just nuclear weapons. The United States probably knew this was true deep down. Washington and Iran’s strategic goals converge closer in 2014 than at any time in more than 10 years. If the Iranians offer up their nuclear enrichment programme and allow inspectors, the United States could return the favour by opening the way for Iranian hegemony in the eastern Middle East. Geopolitics is the ultimate long-term game played on a slowly changing board. The only pieces to alter are the players. And each player wants not so much to win as to avoid loss. All players have no objective but to keep the game going, because the alternative to the game of geopolitics is war. Turkey, Iran and the United States presently have more to gain by cooperation, than they do by being belligerent. Whether the players can see the wood for the trees is another question. The reality on the ground in the Middle East is changing rapidly, but the landscape is moving slower and points in an interesting direction. It isn’t often three diametrically-opposed powers see eye-to-eye, but this just might be history’s latest example. Time will tell. The movements of Turkey, Iran and the United States over the next few months should show what the emerging strategy will be.


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